Most women crave chocolate at some point. Certain types of chocolate can be health-promoting in moderation (like this homemade version) but we typically don’t crave it because of a chocolate deficiency… so why do want it so bad at times?
There are several reasons people crave chocolate. Statistically, women tend to desire chocolate much more than men, but men tend to favor cravings for foods like red meat (B12, protein) and beer (b-vitamins and yeasts).
While the craving may not come from a chocolate deficiency, per se, there are several components in chocolate that the body may become deficient in, especially magnesium and antioxidants. Chocolate can also affect the brain, leading to an increase in neurotransmitters and dopamine and a feeling of happiness.
In studies, chocolate cravings seems especially tied to hormone changes (menstruation, pregnancy, etc) and the magnesium in chocolate, as well as its ability to affect neurotransmitters may be a large part of the reason.
Interestingly, women having chocolate cravings may also be culturally conditioned. The trend of craving chocolate is most pronounced in the US and men reported the craving much less than women. This might stem from the fact that chocolate is largely marketed to women as a way to deal with negative emotions or to “get away from it all.”
In fact, a 2004 study found that premenstrual cravings varied by culture and that chocolate was most craved in the US, while Japanese women favored cravings for rice and sushi (totally switching my cravings to this!).
Magnesium in Chocolate
Chocolate is not the highest magnesium food available, though it does make the top ten list. It is the only top-ten magnesium food that also is known for its ability to promote neurotransmitter activity and dopamine production, so this combination makes it especially desirable during hormone imbalance.
Other foods, like leafy greens, figs, avocados, and nuts are higher in magnesium per gram, but dark chocolate has 327 milligrams of magnesium per 100 grams.
Since experts estimate that 80% of us (or more) are deficient in magnesium, it is important to find ways to increase magnesium levels in the body, but unfortunately, chocolate may not be a great way to do this.
Depletion of soil magnesium has led to a reduction of dietary magnesium and due to gut issues, many people may struggle to absorb magnesium through the digestive system. Personally, I use topical transdermal magnesium, which is much easier for the body to assimilate and use effectively.
I’ve also noticed that when I am consuming enough magnesium-rich foods (especially greens) and using topical magnesium, I don’t have PMS or other hormone struggles (and even had less morning sickness and an easier labor last pregnancy when using magnesium).
Bottom Line: Magnesium deficiency is a major problem. While dark chocolate may be the tastiest way to increase magnesium levels, it probably isn’t the most effective. If anything, chocolate should be used moderately in addition to other whole-food sources of magnesium and a topical magnesium. Tip: Try this magnesium body butter for a skin-softening magnesium boost.
Chocolate and the Brain
Perhaps the most likely reason that we crave chocolate and enjoy eating it so much is the way chocolate affects the brain.
The basic fact that chocolate tastes good and we enjoy eating it means that the body releases dopamine during chocolate consumption. Chocolate also increases serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter responsible for better mood, sleep, and reduction of anxiety.
Women have a natural decrease in serotonin in the brain in the week before menstruation, so this may partially explain the specific craving for chocolate during this time.
Chocolate also contains theobromine, a chemical known to increase heart rate and energy, as well as arousal.
Antioxidants in Chocolate
One chocolate claim that has been largely over-emphasized (especially by certain chocolate companies and network marketing companies) is the antioxidant potential of chocolate.
Chocolate does contain decent amounts of flavonols, antioxidants that are said to be anti-aging and promote healthy blood flow and blood pressure. Flavonols may also help keep blood vessels elastic.
The problem? We would need to consume huge amounts of chocolate to get enough antioxidants to see the benefit, and there are few true studies on the antioxidant potential of chocolate (most are observational).
Additionally, while dark chocolate has relatively high amounts of antioxidants like flavonols, milk chocolate has very little and white chocolate doesn’t have any. Most manufacturers actually remove the flavonols, since they make chocolate taste bitter.
Milk chocolate is statistically the chocolate of choice, at least in the US, and it has negligible antioxidant content, especially for the amount of sugar it contains. Most processed chocolate also contains high fructose corn syrup and other additives.
Bottom Line: If you’re in it for the antioxidants, the only option worth consuming regularly is really high quality dark chocolate from a trusted source with minimal sugar. If the antioxidants are your priority, consider other foods like phytoplankton, spirulina, astaxanthin or organic berries.
The Problem with Chocolate
Now for the bad news….
There are several downsides to chocolate that can negate the health benefits.
Chocolate is a big source of sugar. Commercially produced chocolate often contains very large amounts of sugar or corn syrup solids and should absolutely be avoided. Even some high-end chocolate sold at a tremendous markup and touted for its health promoting properties contain fructose and other sweeteners that have negative health effects.
Proportionately, chocolate is high in sugar, calories and (often) unhealthy fats while providing relatively little nutritional value.
and the really, really, bad news…
The one thing that made me personally extremely picky about the chocolate I consume is the sourcing issues with chocolate.
Most of us don’t realize while we are boosting our PMSing serotonin levels with chocolate that we are also contributing to child slave labor.
It is ironic and sad that the treats that are loved and consumed by women and children in the United States are produced with forced child labor and child slavery:
According to an investigative report by the BBC, hundreds of thousands of children are being purchased from their parents or outright stolen and then shipped to Ivory Coast, where they are enslaved on cocoa farms. Destitute parents in these poverty-stricken lands sell their children to traffickers believing that they will find honest work in Ivory Coast and send some of their earnings home. The terrible reality is that these children, 11-to-16-years-old but sometimes younger, are forced to do hard manual labor 80 to 100 hours a week. They are paid nothing, receive no education, are under fed, and are often viciously beaten if they try to escape. Most will never see their families again.(source)
All health pros and cons aside, I refused to buy or consume any product that came from the work of children forced into slavery and inhumane conditions. An estimated 1.8 million children work in the cocoa fields in Ghana and the Ivory Coast and while the chocolate industry is a 70 Billion dollar industry, this problem hasn’t been corrected.
Thankfully, there are companies that have chosen to be fair-trade and not use child labor for the production of their chocolate. See a full list of these companies here and please consider supporting only these companies that use ethical labor for their production.
Bottom Line: High quality chocolate is fine for most people to consume in moderation, but most chocolate does contain some sugar and there are ethical issues with child slave labor for some chocolate brands. Choosing high-quality slave-free and fair-trade chocolate and consuming it in moderation solves both problems.
What I Do About Chocolate Cravings
High quality dark chocolate does have some health benefits, but also some downsides. That said, chocolate is on the healthy end of the treat spectrum and I do enjoy it in moderation. I usually stick to homemade chocolate or Equal Exchange (a verified child labor free brand).
I’ve found that when I’m specifically craving chocolate I need to look at my magnesium levels and my sleep and stress levels before turning to chocolate as a quick fix.
I’d love to know- do you ever crave chocolate? What kind do you like?